When he was a young boy, Richard Rossi insisted that his dad get general-admission tickets behind right field at old Forbes Field in Pittsburgh so he could be as close as possible to his boyhood idol, Roberto Clemente.
The Hall of Fame outfielder’s passion for baseball, and Rossi’s passion for Clemente, continued as the Pirates moved to Three Rivers Stadium, where Pittsburgh won the World Series in 1971.
But on Dec. 31, 1972, fans everywhere were thunderstruck to learn that Clemente, who was collecting relief supplies for Nicaraguan earthquake victims, was killed when the overloaded plane carrying the supplies plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
Rossi was no different.
“I just cried for days and days and days. I was devastated,” he told Catholic News Service in a telephone interview.
Clemente, even in death, remained young Rossi’s hero.
“At St. Athanasius Grade School in Pittsburgh, the nuns would give us writing assignments, and every story I wrote was on Roberto Clemente,” he said.
Rossi’s admiration of Clemente never diminished, and he spent time over the last five years making a movie about his life, “Baseball’s Last Hero: 21 Clemente Stories.” Numerologists will appreciate the fact that there are 21 letters in the Baseball Hall of Famer’s full name — Roberto Clemente Walker — and that 21 was the jersey number he wore during his career with the Pirates.
That Clemente’s Pirates had a winning season and went to the playoffs in 2013 after 20 losing seasons in a row is not lost on Rossi. The prevailing attitude among diehard Pirates fans, he said, was, “Clemente’s not going to let us have 21 bad years.”
Hispanics have long pushed for Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig to retire the number 21 from use by all teams, just as he had in 1997 for the numeral 42 worn by Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers, who was the first African-American in 60 years to play in the majors.
Rossi is a bit ambivalent about retiring the number: yes, because it would honor Clemente. But perhaps no, because “he gave an example of living out his faith and living out the Gospel,” he said.
The film examines 21 episodes that took place in Clemente’s life during his big-league career.
The most difficult part might have been in casting Clemente. Rossi needed someone who could not only act, but resembled the Puerto Rican superstar and have athletic ability on top of that.
His choice: Olympic high jumper Jamie Nieto, 37, a native of California who is of Mexican heritage.
“He was in the last Olympics while he was shooting this film,” Rossi said. “He finished fourth in the high jump the first time (the 2008 Summer Olympics). He didn’t medal this time. He was the oldest guy at the Olympics in his sport.”
Rossi said the dramatic fulcrum of “Baseball’s Last Hero” is a conversation Clemente has with a nun.
“She talks to him about the cross. ‘Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends,’ is what the nun quotes to him from Scripture, talking about ‘sacrificial love and Christ’s sacrificial love,'” he said. “This is the theme I wanted to point out — an allegory of Christ on the cross.”
Rossi said he had gotten pressure to delete the scene from the movie for being “too preachy and too Catholic.” As it turns out, he added, it’s “one of the most popular things in the film.”
The movie has had screenings in Pittsburgh, where Clemente played for 18 years, as well as Chicago and New York. Rossi is working on staging screenings in San Francisco and Hollywood as well as a big rollout to coincide with the availability of the move on Amazon.com. The retail price? $21.21.
Rossi, now 50, added, “I think the little boy in me wanted to make this film.”
As for his old Clemente stories of his school days, “my mother might have them packed away. She’s a pack rat,” Rossi said. “The last time I was there I saw a bunch of papers. I saw a note to Jesus in them that I had written.”